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What would Sid do? Buddhism and Drugs

Amy-Winehouse18.jpgAmy Winehouse is one of many celebs who has put down the pipe and picked up a mala. photo courtesy of

Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment at age 35 he was a
confused twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a
spiritual life. He had an overbearing dad, expectations for what he was
supposed to do
with his life, drinks were flowing, lutes were playing, and the
ladiezzz were all about him. Some called him L.L. Cool S. I imagine
close friends just referred to him as Sid.


Many people look to Siddhartha as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. But here we look at a younger Sid
as a confused guy struggling with his daily life. What would he do as a
young person trying to find love, cheap drinks, and fun in a city like
New York? We all make mistakes on our spiritual journey; here is where
they’re discussed.

Each week I’ll take on a new question and
give some advice based on what I think Sid, a confused guy working on
his spiritual life in a world of major distraction, would do. Because
let’s face it, you and I are Sid.

Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and I’ll probably get to it!



Q: My friend just moved to New York City and is doing lots of drugs. What would Sid say about drug use? – L.N.

When Sid became the Buddha he started a whole monastic order and gave them five precepts, the last of which was “No intoxicants – they lead to carelessness.” Fair enough for monastics 2500 years ago, but what about us lay folk today? I mean, the Buddha gave another precept which includes no lying but I’m sure when he was Sid he told his wife that she looked plenty thin in those jeans.

Here’s my deductive reasoning for the day: the Buddha based his teachings on the truths he discovered through his experience. He also said that intoxicants lead to carelessness and should be avoided. Thus I’m led to believe Sid must have gotten shwasted from time to time on whatever the local flavor was in order to know that these intoxicants aren’t helpful to one’s path. Some of us may feel the need to follow in his footsteps and see if that’s true for us too.


So from one perspective yeah, drugs are not a great way to go. They can send you on crazy trips or get you super aggressive. It’s hard to maintain one’s mindfulness when the world is breathing colors. On the flip side I imagine Sid had to experience the effects of intoxicants in order to know they weren’t for him.

With that in mind here’s some tips on how Sid might approach drug use:

1) If you think you’re having some sort of experience, acknowledge it, see it for what it is, and come back to the present moment.

More often than not people get all excited that they’re experiencing something other than their humdrum life while on drugs and want to solidify that experience into something real. It’s not real. It’s the drugs. So don’t get too attached. And don’t consider your temporary experience a deep spiritual achievement because you didn’t do anything to achieve it but put some mushrooms in your mouth and gulp.

2) Bring a level of precision to what you’re doing.


We can look at why we are taking drugs. Is it an escape from something you don’t want to deal with or just something you want to try out with close friends? Look at your motivation before leaping in. And while you’re engaging your drug(s) of choice keep reflecting on your experience and try (try!) to bring a sense of mindfulness to it. Watch what it does to your mind.

3) Take it easy.

I would always recommend the buddy system when trying out drugs so you feel you have a safe container for whatever exploration you’re going on. And watch your tendency to blow more and more money and time on drugs. That ain’t healthy. Please, no addictions. Please.

On one hand taking drugs can be seen as counter to engaging reality as it is so I can’t imagine Sid being a big fan of hitting the pipe on the regular. On the other, if you’re going to do it be safe. And whatever you do, don’t accept candy from stangers.

Comments read comments(13)
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Beesay Slaugh

posted June 5, 2009 at 3:57 pm

In “Tears Dry on their Own,” Amy sings “I don’t know why I got so attached.” Funny to hear Buddhist vocab. words there.

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posted June 5, 2009 at 10:16 pm

The path to freedom is in stilling the mind, in controlling the tempest of chatter and penetrating through. Why would we want to do something that leads to the waters becoming even murkier? Life is short, and life is precious we should not waste it in unskillfull behaviour.

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posted June 6, 2009 at 4:09 pm

I feel this answer borders on gross irresponsibility. To condone drug use as experimentation to see if the advice is still “true”, even with the caveat to “take it easy”, is wrong any way I look at it.
Firstly, there is no way to be safe when you have impaired your judgement. You may be trusting a friend to watch you, but what if they decide to impair their judgement as well (based on the example you have set for them)? Secondly, drugs do not affect all people the same way, while one may be able to “experiment” and get away with it, another may be physically more predisposed to addiction and not survive the “experiment” unscathed.
Also, ONE case of impaired judgement while driving or operating heavy equipment, or even simply carrying a child up the stairs, could lead to death or serious injury to self or others. There are some things where there are no levels of participation are safe – which is why there are things such as “zero tolerance” policies.
Your article is basically telling someone to ignore the advice not to stick their hands in the fire, but to burn themselves intentionally so they know first hand it’s a stupid thing to do. What is the point of passing on a tradition of wisdom if we don’t place some level of faith in the basic premises?
To step back and catch a breath, I realize that 1) you were answering a question about a current drug user, 2) you are trying to re-evaluate in current context, and 3) you are using a kind of hip, laid-back language to attract a certain audience.
To the first point, you article is read by more people than just the existing drug user; the questioner asked “What would Sid say about drug use”, not “What would Sid say to my friend”. What Sid said on this point was clear and unequivocal: “no intoxicants”.
As to whether or not that advice is still relevant after two and a half thousand years, I ask “what has changed?”. I’m confident they had a similar range of mind-altering substances to what we have today. The human mind hasn’t changed significantly, so the impact would be the same. As I see it, what HAS changed is the potential harm that can be done. As an example, “drunk driving” in those days would mean something like falling off your horse, whereas today it means losing control of a ton of steel moving at highway speeds – the risk to self and others is MUCH greater today.
As to writing style and how to communicate the teachings to an audience, I am admittedly no expert. However, the teachings tell us to always be mindful of our impact on others and use skillful means to best communicate with the listener, to be aware of how we can best benefit them. I urge you to reconsider this message, to be aware of those who will read into it that drug use is OK because a Buddhist teacher told them so.
Finally, as a practicing Buddhist I understand the role of doubt and questioning, that Sid said we should not take his teachings on faith, but try them for ourselves and see. However, he did not say to break every rule once to see if it was a good one, but try the practice to see if it works for you. Therefore, I think the advice should be “try abstinence from intoxicants and see if your life doesn’t improve” rather than “try them and if they screw you up, then you know not to do them anymore”.

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Alcoholic Al

posted June 6, 2009 at 7:01 pm

If you “lose” your mind you are that far ahead… drugs are all mind however…!

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posted June 7, 2009 at 2:31 am

Dear earlra,
I want to thank you for a really insightful critique of my post. I enjoyed it as well as reading all the comments on this site. I think you raised some great counter-points and respect where you are coming from.
I do need to be clear about a few things as this is early on in this weekly column:
1) I will respond to things from the point of view of Sid, who is someone who is struggling with their spiritual life, not the Buddha, who laid out a path for us to follow to enlightenment
2) When I agreed to write this column I made a commitment to myself never to play judge as to what is “right” and “wrong” when asked a question, only to comment within the context of what was asked of me. I can understand some people thinking that irresponsible but I feel that at least at this point that is how I’m going to play it.
Personally speaking I know a fair amount of Buddhist practitioners who have experimented with drugs. In this particular case I felt I should answer the question in the context of how to work with drug use, not if drugs were good or bad.
With that much being said I’ll stand by this post as I feel it emphasizes caution and notes that even when he was Sid the Buddha probably wasn’t too keen on the pipe.
Once again, I appreciate your insight on this issue and hope others will join in the dialogue. I am no expert on these issues, only another being struggling with living a spiritual life in the modern world.
Yours in the dharma,

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Todd Baxter

posted June 7, 2009 at 7:55 am

I loved how you called him sid. Made it just sound so much friendlier than Siddhartha Gautama. I know just words but I liked how you presented that. I can relate more to Sid than I can Siddhartha.
And I am definitely more sid than I am a Buddha at most times.
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it – even if I have said it – unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. –Buddha…
I think that pretty much sums up what you might have been trying to get across.
I think it important to find balance in the situation that presents itself not the perfection. Many may call me a bad Buddhist {hahhah}but I don’t even believe the Buddha was perfect. A very wise human being that got it, and has helped a lot of people. But I find it hard to believe he was perfect everyday. I believe that even after his enlightenment he made mistakes and things were not taken the way he meant them.
Balance – It is what works for the situation and no one gets hurts..
Perfection – Without fault.. Makes no mistakes.. Is not effected by change.
Just my 2 cents..

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posted June 7, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Lodro, I agree completely with your point of view. Speaking for myself only, as a “Buddhist” practioner, I aspire to be like “Buddha” – not “Sid”. If I wanted to know what “Sid” would do, I could ask any one of my struggling, but spiritual friends for advice on a situation and get 100 different answers. In my opinion, an advice columnist should be an expert!

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posted June 7, 2009 at 11:38 pm

I actually meant I agree with earlra’s comments.

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Steven Gilpin

posted June 8, 2009 at 1:51 pm

I think this is a very lucid and fascinating response to a great question. I loved reading it, and I also found it to be illuminating and open-minded. Thanks!!

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posted June 9, 2009 at 12:15 am

@Todd Baxter
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it – even if I have said it – unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. –Buddha…”
I think that you are paraphrasing the Kalama sutta here, right? If so, it’s a misleading paraphrase.
In the sutta, the Buddha does tell the Kalamas to follow what they’ve determined, for themselves, to be skillful / unskillful, but he also includes as part of that determination checking with the opinions of the “wise.” I think that gets to the accumulated wisdom of the tradition that another poster mentioned above.
From the sutta:
‘Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them.’

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posted June 9, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Seems like some commenters would have preferred if this answer was more sternly anti-drug. Whenever I start to get too high and mighty about not being much of a drinker/smoker, etc., I think about all the other tools and behaviors I “use” to avoid difficult emotions (Facebook quizzes???!) and am put back in my place.
Human beings have invented many, many technologies and activities (and thought patterns!) to escape feeling and responsibility, and I think it’s good to remember our own indulgences/escapes before we’re too quick to judge others. Although I’m not much of a “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” thinker, (pretty much the opposite), in the case of drug use I think it’s not the particular substance so much as an individual’s relationship to it that is cause for special caution and concern.
To contradict myself a little, though, I _do_ think there’s a difference between ingesting substances that cause physical harm (even a little bit) and engaging in negative behaviors that more abstractly harm our “wellness”. It probably makes sense to be extra alert to actual drugs’ physical risks*, as opposed to drug-like behaviors’ risks to, say, happiness. I also think chemical addiction isn’t something folks can willpower their way out of, so perhaps Sid was a little bit too light in the part about addictions.
Liking these columns, Lodro! SG
*and from an interdependence perspective– even if you don’t care if you’re hurting your body, that harm is probably going to end up affecting people who care about you and people you’re responsible for, so it’s ethical to do a little bit of cost/benefit analysis… if the personal is capable of that much delayed gratification…

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posted June 16, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Stop slandering the Buddha by calling him “Sid”. It’s Sakyamuni Buddha by the way. And he was in no way “confused” prior to his enlightenment. Stop trying to use the Buddha to express your twisted views. If you want to do drugs, we can’t stop you. Don’t delude others with your bad habit.

the 5 precepts are for EVERYONE! They are the basic requirement to be called a human being.

Do most of you drugs users really think serious buddhist practitioners haven’t tried drugs and alcohol before?

I suggest people read about the Buddha’s life before saying ignorant things, it’s actually for your own good the most, if you believe in karma that is.

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